Veda Popovici’s practice combines art and activism, feminism and a critique of contemporary society. She is part of a community of young artists in Romania, and collaborates with other artists on projects such as the Presidential Candidate and Postspectacle, addressing a range of issues both in her collaborative work and in her individual practice. Overall, I got the sense that the artist uses her practice to investigate her position and place in the world in the context of external factors such as the nation and the concept of the Occident. The artist tells me, in fact, that power relations is the red thread running through her work.
One of the ways in which Veda takes on these issues is by assuming the role of a character. She did this in her lecture performance The Story of the Fall, in which she played the role of a story-teller, talking about the apocalypse from the future, historicizing it. The performance involved the viewer in that it left gaps in the story, for the audience to fill in their minds. For the artist, this story combined fiction with reality – fiction, because the end hasn’t exactly come, but the reality, for the artist – and others in her circle – is that it may very well. At the very least, society is currently at a crucial moment. Liberal democracy is failing, and we are already living in a dystopia. This is what the Presidential Candidate, a project and platform that involves a number of artists in Romania, is based on, with its radical political vision. The Presidential Candidate is a project that enables anyone to stand as a candidate in the next presidential election, on the same platform. That way, if elected, it wouldn’t be one person running the country, but rather, a democracy literally by the people and for the people. The Presidential Candidate proposes to abolish the single authority figure in favor of many voices, and Veda’s voice was one of them.
Veda appeared on the podium of the Presidential Candidate as Eva Peron, in the context of Postspectacle Shelter, a project organized by a group of artists involved in both of these projects, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest (MNAC). The project combined art and activism, performativity and social projects, by opening up the so-called “Palace of the People” to the people – by inviting homeless people to art gallery, offering them food, shelter, medical care, and a voice – as any one of the guests was able to take the podium and speak about himself and tell his story. Veda told me about the positive atmosphere, that the people invited felt that they would be listened to, and the negative attitude toward the event by the guards who police the entrance of MNAC, since the building is a government institution. The behavior of the guards demonstrated the power relations at play in everyday society, where the socially marginal are either ignored or treated aggressively by the rest of society. Veda spoke of this event in what I felt were very processual terms – not as an end-point, but as a learning experience. All of the artists were very much aware of the delicate situation wherein they invite homeless people to be part of what is not only a social project, but also an artistic one. She spoke of concerns about instrumentalizing them, objectifying them, but also stated that they needed to do this type of project to educate themselves about “their own colonialist views.” The artists involved activists and social workers in the project, to ensure that they wouldn’t be taking advantage of the homeless, and they said that if this event is truly regarded as a starting point, then it does not necessarily have to be seen as exploitative.
The idea of colonialism is one that surfaced in a project that the artist did in Nida, Lithuania, entitled The Wretched in the Sand (2013). Nida is a town on the Curonian Spit, a narrow strip of land that is actually a sand dune. Jean-Paul Sartre visited the Curonian Spit in 1965, surrounded by an entourage of KGB officers, either protecting him from his surroundings or vice versa. Veda re-enacted this visit, but turned the tables slightly – instead of a Westerner visiting the Curonian Spit, she was a Romanian, supposedly a fellow Easterner; instead of a male, she is female. She read a text written by Franz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth (1961), an anti-colonial text addressed to his fellow Western Europeans, about the decline of the West, calling for an end to the continent that had developed based on murder and looting. In reading this text on the dunes, a desert atmosphere that gives the sense that it could be anywhere, even outside of Europe, the artists asks those present to consider this text in terms of the contemporary context, in the post-Soviet space, following the supposed dissolution of terms such as “East” and “West” and think about what it actually means to be “Western” or European. She spoke about the dynamic of being in a country (Lithuania) that expressed a great desire for Europe, with the realization that they were not, in fact part of it [when I was teaching English in Riga, I vividly recall asking my students about their vacation plans, and they would often tell me that they were going to “Europe,” meaning Western Europe, a statement that made clear the sentiment that Latvia was not, in fact, part of Europe.] In this piece, like with many others, the artist asks viewers to think critically about terms and situations that they take for granted.
One of the greatest power dynamics that artists across Eastern Europe are currently experiencing is the relationship with the art market. In Dear Money, a staged photograph, the artist appears with her face covered in gold, raising issues and concerns with not only the art market, but the artist’s body and its value in connection with the art work (especially considering the fact that the artist’s body often is the work of art, especially in performative work), as well as specific local concerns regarding Roșia Montană, a commune of villages in Transylvania that has been exploited for its mineral and gold mines. Activists in Romania have been protesting against the gold mining in the region for years, over fears of not only devastation to the land, but also loss of human life, owing to the cyanide waste from the mining process. In connecting gold with the body, as well as the artist’s body, Veda makes a complex statement about a range of issues, from local preservation and exploitation to international issues regarding the art market and the place of artists from the “East” within it.